Conversations with Communities: Devon’s Head of Libraries talks about the Council’s plans for public consultation

Devon is a beautiful county with diverse communities and I’m proud to have led their Library Service for the past 5 years. Our service has faced a big challenge – we’ve had to save £3 million over the past 3 years, that’s 30% of the annual budget. My team and Devon’s communities have met this together and built a service that won the Bookseller Industry Award Library of the Year in 2013.

We have developed new services, like Free Fridays, which offer people looking for jobs help with new technology, and help with finding the information they need. We have also set up a range of public health interventions to support healthier lifestyles.  Our Devon Book for Summer for the past 2 years has brought the best new books to the attention of readers across the county as part of an ongoing partnership with the publishers Transworld and our Summer Reading Challenge now reaches almost 10,000 children across Devon, 10 times more than it did 10 years ago.

Our staff have more freedom to work with other people and organisations; my colleagues are encouraged to seek funding for new projects that support and enhance our core roles and, as Head of the Library Service, I see my role as increasingly entrepreneurial, spotting opportunities to align the library’s contribution to public health, economic development and social care prevention.  It’s no surprise, given our team work, that we’ve secured over £300,000 over the past 2 years to support these agendas and recently secured significant additional investment from public health to roll this work out still further over the next 3 years. Proof that we’re making the case successfully and that commissioners understand the potential of libraries.

Now we stand on the threshold of another challenge.  Having saved £100 million over the past 3 years, Devon County Council now has to save a further £100 million in the next budget cycle.  All services are subject to serious review and rationalisation. The Library Service needs to save a further £1.5 million over the next 3 years.

As President-Elect of the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL), I’ve been in the fortunate position of seeing how other local authorities have reviewed their library services in recent years.  It’s clear that some have looked outwards and won the support of their customers and communities whilst others have rushed quickly towards library closures or swift handover of library assets to community groups with a limited amount of consultation and engagement.

In such a large, rural place like Devon, the challenge of enabling communities to have access to a good quality library service is significant at any time but, in times of such severe financial restraint, it’s a huge challenge and one that requires input from a whole range of perspectives.  Old solutions are not likely to help – we need to think new thoughts, talking to a whole range of people and organisations to enable us to design a new approach to service delivery in rural areas, which is both affordable and sustainable.

Over the next 3 months, we will talk to people across the county – our loyal customers who are keen to keep the service; our non-users  (including lapsed users) who, for whatever reason, don’t or can’t use our libraries; local Town and Parish Councils, elected members and the community and voluntary sector.  We are also keen to talk with rural businesses, social enterprises, arts organisations  – in fact, our door is open to anyone who is interested in working with us to identify new ways of sustaining rural libraries.

In our larger towns and in Exeter, our city, we plan to look for partners and other services that could share our buildings, thereby reducing running costs and offering a wider range of new services.  We already have two successful ‘Devon Centres’, bringing together a modern library, alongside adult learning facilities, provision for adults with learning disabilities, cafes and rooms that other public and third sector services, such as District Councils and Clinical Commissioning Groups, can use for the benefit of local people.   We will follow that in May when we reopen Exeter Library as our third Devon Centre following investment in a £4.2 million redevelopment.  The Library will be a flagship for the county, a centre of expertise in supporting new businesses; the first public library in the country (we think) to have a Fab Lab (offering a range of prototyping equipment including 3D printers) and a key player in the city’s cultural life, connecting up with the nearby museum, arts centre and beautiful gardens.  The Library will have lower running costs as a result of a more efficient building; other services in the building contributing to the cost and a wider range of income generating services, like a new cafe and more meeting rooms.  It was already the busiest visitor attraction in Devon – with this new investment and new thinking, we expect use to go through the roof.

Alongside the Cabinet Member for Libraries, my plan over the coming months is to engage as widely as possible; to listen to all views put forward; to develop a clear understanding of how the proposed changes to libraries could affect people; to consider alternative approaches or ideas we’ve not yet thought of and, crucially, to engage the staff team across the county in the whole process.  It’s a tough time but I’ve no doubt that, if we manage it in an open and engaging way, we’ll learn far more about our library service and its future potential than we ever could alone.

Ciara can be contacted at